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    Aitwal's second ascent of Mt. Srikant (6,133m)

    Expeditions led and conducted by women mountaineers in the Himalaya have seen an increase in recent years. One of the most notable women climbers in India is Chandra Prabha Aitwal or Chandra Didi, as she is fondly known to all in the mountaineering fraternity. In a mountaineering career spanning 38 years, she has summitted some of the most difficult peaks - Nanda Devi, Kamat, Kabru Dome, Abi Gamin, and Sathopanth to name a few.  She thrice reached a height of 28,000ft.on Mt. Everest and has the distinction of being known as 'the jewel of Garhwal'.  In recognition of her dedication and love for the mountains, a virgin peak she climbed has been named after her- Chandra Mangala Cho.

    Now in her 60s, Chandraprabha recently led an expedition to Mt. Srikant. It was her second ascent on the mountain.  She had already done so in 2005 and now in 2009 she decided she would guide ten young members up the summit of this grand old mountain. When she invited Ramanan and me to join her on this expedition we felt honoured and readily agreed to participate. The group that embarked on a journey to this historic mountain consisted of women from all over India, three High Altitude Guides, one Camera Assistant, an official photographer and two cooks.

    The Skanda Purana glorifies the great mountain Srikant as the spot where Sage Bhagirath did penance to bring down the waters of the Holy Ganges from the heavens to earth, so as to sanctify the land she flows through and cleanse its inhabitants of their sins and enrich its soil so that life and civilisations flourish on its banks.  Mt. Srikant (6,133m) stands in the Dudu Valley of the Garhwal Himalaya, 20kms from Gangotri.

    Our expedition started from the road head at Jangla, 20 km from Gangotri.  The entire route to the Base Camp is a steep climb, initially through pine and deodar forests and then onto a precarious path with finely pulverized sand and stones.  Chinar trees appeared at higher altitudes. The constant roar of the Dudu Gadh kept us company.  We came to a small rickety bridge, quite old, made from fallen tree trunks covered with moss and lichen, which could carry only one person at a time.  From thereon, at a height of 9,300ft., the path gets steeper and tougher. We climbed through a well shaded jungle with a wide variety of trees and shrubs, ranging from creepers twining around trees, to tall trees growing in wild shapes, their trunks extending in weird directions in search of the sun.  We hiked over rocks and boulders and remained to the true right side of the river.  Bhoj Pathra trees and Thelu shrubs, the wood of which is used for fire especially by priests in temples, grew in abundance. It took us 6 hours to reach the Base Camp (12,928 ft.)  - a luxuriant pasture with a stream flowing through, giving the spot an idyllic look.  The meadows were full of flowers of all colours - bright yellow, crimson red, maroon, purple, pink, blue and white on a green glade - Marsh Marigolds, Balsams, Potentilas, Saxifrage, and Blue Poppies.

    From the Base Camp it is a tough ascent to ABC.  There are two routes, one lies up the ridge along the true left side of the Dudu Bamakh.  The climb all the way up is very monotonous and a strain on the knees and feet. The other trail runs along the foot of the ridge.  It is made interesting by the meandering rivulet and the flowers that brighten up the landscape with their upturned faces. The field is green with strawberry bushes devoid of fruits.  The first two hours are a gradual trek up a steady incline followed by a steep ascent that joins the ridge. An hour's trek over rocks and boulders brought us to the ABC at a height of 15,180ft. We were welcomed there by the exotic flowers of this area- Brahma Kamal- Saussurea Obvallata and the family of the Phen Kamal- Sausurea simpsoniana, S. graminifolia and S. gossypiphora. On the southern side rise the snow capped peaks of Gangotri I and an unnamed mountain. On the western side, the towering top of Mt. Srikant filled our hearts with an inspiring awe. On a bright sunny morning the mountain looks massive. The top is partially snow-covered and partially rocky.  The stark absence of water in this area is striking.  We had to move huge stones to locate any trickle of water. The mountains were extremely rocky with sharply pointed tops.  They had all arisen from a primordial upheaval 50 million years ago. The frightening sound of avalanches punctuated the silence.  The snout of the Dudu glacier is at the ABC and the ice wall there almost rises to the upper snowfields of Gangotri I.

    There is no definite track to Camp I which is at a height of 17,158ft.  It is a steep incline over a fine Bugiyal, rich with Bugi grass. This meadow is covered with a wild cover of flowers in myriad hues.  All life comes alive after every rainfall.  But this enjoyable ramble turns into a difficult trudge as we go higher and higher.  One careless step over the scree slopes can drag you many feet below.  After the first hour, the sight of Mt. Sudarshan rising on the eastern side from behind the rocky spurs is an amazing sight. Large boulders and rocks posed a threat in the last leg of this tedious climb.  Camp I was full of stones, which had to be cleared before pitching tents.  Rainfall lashed at the lower altitudes while snowfall curtailed the speed of work in the higher realms. Mt. Srikant, most of the time, remained a veiled beauty, only occasionally revealing her true massive form.  Clouds always hovered around the summit.  On a clear, sunny day, the number of peaks that rise all around render one breathless - the Manda group of mountains, Chidbasa, Haathi Parbath, Matri, Brighu Panth, Talai Sagar, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Jogin groups can be seen.  A little distance from this campsite, one can also see the village of Dharali below. We climbed another 1,500ft for about 8 hrs to reach the Summit Camp or Camp II.  We had to jummar up an ice-covered rock wall to reach the site and had to fix five ropes.

    The wind and snowfall slowed down the next phase of our climb.  Chandra Bahadur opened the route.  After three days of preparation, the team was ready to summit and on August 24, 2009 the members waited from 5a.m. for the clouds to disperse and snowfall to subside before they started on their memorable march at 6:30 a.m. Crevasses on the icy slopes posed a challenge to the summiteers. The overhang on the top is formidable and hence the eight members and the three High Altitude guides had to plant the National Flag and the I.M.F. Flag 10ft. below the summit. Thick clouds were constantly hovering over the peak and the white out blocked any view of the towering mountains around.  The steep ice wall and a crevasse near the summit pose a challenge to any expert climber's technical skills. J. Ramanan, followed the team's progress from Camp II to the Summit with his zoom lens. But after a while we lost contact as the clouds prevented any view of the summiteers.

    The eight members who summitted were - our leader Miss Chandraprabha Aitwal, Ribanisha, Chanda, Rekha, Dolyene, Mamta, Bali and Rajal. Amreen, unfortunately fell sick just two days before the D Day, but she had contributed a lot towards fixing ropes and ferrying load till Camp II.  Dr. Surabhi was our Medical Officer and I trekked along up to Camp I to report the entire event.  J. Ramanan was the official photographer. The HAP played a significant role in assisting the members.  Chandra Bahadur, the most experienced and responsible opened the route and did not hesitate in climbing up and down several times to help all the members reach up.  Ravi, Jasvir, and Shravan- these names need special mention because of their untiring attempts in facing challenges posed by the weather and the terrain. Suraj, the young 19 year old youngster ably assisted Ramanan in his photographic pursuits.  The cooks Tirpan and Prem Singh have to be lauded for the delectable cuisine they dished out at those remote heights.

    Shravan helped a team member suffering from High Altitude Sickness to climb down from the Summit Camp to ABC.  This will never be forgotten by any of us.  He sacrificed the summit.  His trips from Camp I to Camp II and the ABC several times to reach rations and medicines to the members requires special mention.

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